I am tired of Shahbagh activists claiming they are not political. The truth is they are immensely political. What they mean, I believe, is that they are not party-affiliated, that they are not career politicians and want to have nothing to do with the corrupt political institutions and the violent political culture the Bangladeshi parties have bred. In a democracy a widespread movement such as Shahbagh is always political and their clear stance that they will not be hijacked by political parties is also political. The sovereign has taken to the streets.
I also disagree with those, who ask that Shahbagh remains focussed on a small set of objectives: bringing 1971 war criminals to justice and seeing them hanged. The recent murder of the blogger “Thaba Baba” has shown that Shahbagh has become the focal point of a much deeper conflict, rooted in Bangladeshi history. I believe Shahbagh needs to become a place to discuss the past, to make out what really happened in 1971, in order to envision a better future. A future in which activists will be proud to claim that they are political. Shahbagh needs to become a place not for abstract generalities, but for the specifics. It needs to become the place for tough questions.
We need to talk about the past
So far my impression is that Shahbagh is reproducing the story of independence that we have been taught through school: that in 1971 the country was split neatly into Pakistani Army and collaborators on one side and Mukti Bahini and the general population on the other; that one side perpetrated heinous crimes and the other fought heroically to glorious victory.
However, war is never glorious and never neat: Yes, the Pakistani army and their collaborators committed terrible crimes against civilians, turning the freedom fighters into heroes is doing them injustice. In 1971 children and teenagers became soldiers, adults and children survived terrible inhumanities or witnessed these firsthand and others who had been farmers, fishermen and students and teachers learnt to kill. The war left millions traumatized and we have seldom spoken of their pain or how they learnt to go on living.
The truth is many didn’t. I know of decorated freedom fighters who died alcoholics and others, who became soldiers as young as fourteen, whose pain came back to haunt them and whose lives have fallen apart around them. I am grateful that my father, who was a guerrilla fighter, but who was also a minor when he became a soldier, who was a prisoner of war and faced with the possibility of death every day of his imprisonment, who was tortured in ways he refuses to talk about to this day, is today an opponent of war and violence. Things could have ended differently.
At the same time the resistance of the population was not neat, but a diverse effort and a place of intense political contest. Political groups fought in the war, envisioning a future very different from Sheikh Mujib’s amalgamous political vision — among them more stringent socialists or Maulana Bhashani’s NAP, which based itself in a far more tolerant and democratic vision of Islam than Jamaat’s hate-filled ideology today; at the same time the war itself created its own leaders and factions, who formulated their own ideas about the future. This diversity needs to be talked of, because it is the root of the turmoil that followed the war, the dictatorships and assassinations.
They are also the roots of Bangladeshi society today and we need to discuss them before moving on.
We need to talk about the future
Already Shahbagh has become the focal point of discussions about justice, capital punishment and secularism. By demanding justice it is not only confronting the past, but also posing a challenge as to the place and justification of Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh. The call for justice directly challenges a party whose central leaders are probably war criminals; the widespread involvement of women at Shahbagh challenges a party, whose reactionary view of women imagines them outside the public sphere; the call for unity regardless of religious views challenges a party that is so closely linked to violence against religious minorities in Bangladesh and envisions a state, in which a single religion will reign supreme.
This struggle has already begun with the murder of a firmly secular activist (even if his assailants remain unknown) and the call for the ban of Jamaat — a ban that would probably be comfortably within the bounds of political freedoms as formulated by the Charta of Human Rights.
But Shahbagh has also begun challenging fundamental political institutions in the country. Party politicians who regularly babble about this or that being the will of the people suddenly find themselves driven away by those very same people. Institutions that believed they could continue their corrupt ways with impunity, suddenly find themselves challenged. The call for the death penalty is as often a call for vengeance as it is the fear of a corrupt judiciary and executive taking back the sentence now spoken when the political winds change. “I would support life imprisonment”, many say. “If there were a guarantee, that Quader Mollah would actually spend his life in prison.”
The irony of these words is that it protests corruption in the political system, but then demands justice of that very same system. Who can guarantee that a convicted war criminal actually spends his life in prison? If it is not the government or political parties, then perhaps a sovereign people, now mobilized, that ensures an uncorrupted, independent judiciary. The road to that end will be long — and this is why Shahbagh needs to formulate broader political ideas. Bangladesh is full of activists and civil organizations doing important work, but always staying away from the sphere of political institutions. This needs to change.
Why “Tui Rajakar” is so powerful
A first step would be for Shahbagh to emancipate itself from Awami League government that sees fit to align itself with the movement at this time. Instead of naming only the Rajakars that the government has brought before court, Shahbagh needs to start naming all of them — even those that have found their way into political institutions and parties. Their names need to be compiled, witnesses heard and their deeds listed. Shahbagh needs to stop demanding the government and politicians to do a better job and instead formulate its demands directly towards the judiciary.
It needs to hold the Chief Prosecutor accountable to dragging every one of the accused in front of a court; it needs to hold the International Crimes Tribunal accountable to holding the most fair and immaculate trials Bangladesh has ever seen; it needs to hold the jailers accountable to keeping their prisoners in until their sentence is served – and it needs to guarantee the accused that they will be heard in court, but also that justice will be done.
Far more deterring than the death penalty, is guaranteeing criminals regardless of who they are or know that they will be found, they will be put in front of court and they will be named and punished for what they are. This is what Nazis and their collaborators experience these days when Nazi-hunters all over the world drag them before courts. It is irrelevant that they are often too broken, sick and old to stand trial and many of them die of old age before the sentence is spoken. However, they end their lives knowing they have been found, identified and will be remembered for what they are: torturers, murderers and war criminals.
This is why Shahbagh’s slogan of “Tui Rajakar” is so much more powerful and promising than “Fanshi chai“.
Lalon Sander is a Bangladeshi-German journalist.